Nikon D500: The D5 Abridged

 

d500-frontNikon seems to be over the long, unavoidable delays that befell its APS-C flagship. Raj Lalwani tests the Nikon D500 to see if it’s really a mini D5.

Several years late to the party, but the D300 successor is nevertheless, finally here. Nikon’s full frame flagship, in the same amount of time (since 2007), has seen four solid updates. But then, while speculation has been rife for more than five years about what the D300s update would include, the mythical ‘D400’ remains just that, a myth. It’s actually called the D500, an apology perhaps, for all the lost time, or maybe, an indication of how good this new APS-C flagship is.

Features

The D500 is a 20.9MP APS-C camera with an AF system that has as many as 153 points, 99 of which are crosstype. However, like the D5, only 55 of these are selectable (a sensible decision). 15 of the central points work at f/8. A new metering sensor has 180k pixels to improve colour accuracy. The data from the colour metering module works in tandem with the AF system to identify and track subjects too, while making metering more intelligent. That said, it works very differently from the D750 and D810, especially when the scene has a large amount of dark areas, so if you are pairing the D500 with another Nikon body, be very critical. The XQD/SD-shooting camera can fire away 10fps for, hold your breath, 200 RAW photos (lossless compressed 14-bit, as long as you’re using an XQD card). The D7200 could only shoot 17, the D300S, 30, and the Canon 7D Mark II, 31.

The D500 is one of the first ever DSLRs to shoot 4k video (at 112Mbps) and while it does not have as short a time span limit as the D5, it shoots 4k from a 1.5x crop of its sensor. Considering this is already a DX camera, this basically means a 2.5x crop relative to 35mm, which basically means that a 24mm lens captures a 54mm field of view. For a system where DX ultrawide options are already minimal, this may not appeal to some users. One can customise the camera’s behaviour separately for stills and video shooting, so that one does not have to prioritise one over the other.

The camera has a Flat picture profile (not as flat as the GH4 and the Sonys), a mic and headphone socket, power aperture control and on-screen highlight warnings. There is no focus peaking, which seems like a strange oversight on a camera that tries to appeal to the video crowd. AF during video, too, is nowhere nearly as good as Canon. While 4k quality is incredible in good light, it starts to suffer at ISO 3200, presumably because you are using only a small sensor area, which, thus, also reduces sensitivity. The D500 has an anti-flicker option for shooting stills, a feature borrowed from the 7D Mark II. Surprisingly, there is no onboard flash. The Bluetooth transfer option is excellent, but WiFi implementation isn’t as smooth as the D750’s, sadly, and needs Bluetooth, and is currently compatible only with Android.

Test Shot

Matrix metering responds a little differently, as compared to the way it does in cameras like the D750 and D810. In situations that are critical, the Highlight Weighted Metering mode comes in use. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/9 (ISO 320). Photograph/Raj Lalwani.

 Handling

Let’s deal with some minor quibbles first as there aren’t too many, though in a camera that is otherwise aiming so high (and reaching those heights), these issues tend to stand out. The shifting of the ISO button to the top right (as has been done on the D5) doesn’t seem well thought out, especially considering that the video record button could have been used to adjust the same (as is possible in the D750) for those who prefer right-handed operation. The flash control button (for times when you attach a flashgun) is one of the back-left buttons that’s already burdened with a bunch of other functions, and can be confusing to find if one doesn’t want to take their eye away from the viewfinder. These three button placements aside, the D500 is an absolute joy. Every button that is connected to the speed aspect of the camera is logically placed, and the ability to temporarily engage or disengage a different AF mode through a single press, is fantastic. Like the D300/D700/D810 (and unlike the D750), the camera actually has an AF-On button, which is invaluable if you largely photograph fast-moving subjects, especially at the telephoto end.

The viewfinder is outstanding, with a rounded eyepiece and 1x magnification, being bigger than previous viewfinders found in the three-digit Nikons. The tilting touchscreen is a boon for both stills and video. It’s curious to make design comparisons with the D750, considering that the D300 was a much heavier (and slightly larger), built more on the lines of the D700. But with the Nikon D500, the company seems to have considered trimming as an evolution. The body design reminds you more of the D750, with a liberal use of carbon fibre along with magnesium alloy. While I welcome the lesser weight, the reduced heft is something you may miss if you use a lot of long lenses.

Performance

A new-generation sensor and a slightly reduced resolution ensure that image quality is top notch, at a level that is higher than the current best in APS-C: the Sony A6300 and Nikon’s own D7200. ISO 6400 poses no problems, and one can actually shoot comfortably at ISO 12,800 if you shoot RAW. It’s not at full frame territory, but APS-C has clearly reached a point where the tradeoffs in image quality aren’t something that would affect a large number of photographers. Dynamic range is excellent, and I was heartened to see that the sensor quirk one saw in the D5, is not there in the D500. The camera is ISO invariant… so whether you make a picture at ISO 3200, or shoot at ISO 400 and push it in RAW by three stops, the resulting noise is the same. Deliberate underexposure to protect highlights in extreme situations or while trying out different flash techniques is not as much a danger, thus, even if you are pushing the sensor to its limits.

This is the fastest focusing camera we have tested thus far, along with its big brother, the D5. The D500 is actually a greater joy on field, the coverage of the autofocus points has been greatly increased from previous models, and admirably, covers the entire viewfinder. Autofocus using the 70–200mm f/2.8 VR II lens is astonishingly quick and even while using relatively slower lenses like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art, AF locks instantly, even while using the corner points.

Tracking is incredibly quick and you will never drop a frame. Just like the D5, you now have two different parameters that can fine tune the way tracking works. This is also perhaps the most intelligent out-of-the-box AF system, so much so that while shooting from the hip, using Multi AF, in light that demanded ISO 12,800 and f/1.4, the AF always locked onto the face of the closest person in a dark, crowded area. This was admirable, considering how critical AF is at f/1.4 while using a 35mm lens.

The sensitivity of the AF module is also impressive. –4EV at the centre and –3EV while using the corner points. Absolutely classleading. That said, one must not forget that the camera, any camera, needs that tiny hint of contrast to actually lock focus. Live View AF is the only disappointment, and is not as quick as the competition.

For those looking to follow moving subjects through the viewfinder, viewfinder blackout is lesser than that on other APS-C cameras, but isn’t as impressibly short as that on the D5.

Test Shot2

The D500’s image quality is excellent. Not only is this the most noise free of all non-full frame sensors, the dynamic range, too, even at high ISO settings, is good. Exposure: 1/100sec at f/2.5 (ISO 5000) Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Conclusion

The only thing that goes against the D500 is Nikon itself. While the company has continued to iterate camera bodies and lines, the support for DX remains minimal. The 16–80mm f/2.8-4 solves certain aspects, but there’s no ultrawide lens, or even a wide angle that has a fast maximum aperture. Curiously enough, third-party manufacturers have managed to build a good enough f/1.8 zoom kit, with the Sigma 18–35mm f/1.8 and now the 50–100mm f/1.8 . Lens choice rant aside, Nikon, take a bow. It’s been nine years since the iconic D3/D300 combo shook the market. A champion in every aspect, most of all in terms of image quality, autofocus and shooting speed, this is a seminal camera.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
10fps, RAW buffer of 200 frames, lack of flash, 4k video, touchscreen, Bluetooth
14/15
Performance
Exceptional autofocus, best APS-C sensor
43/45
Build Quality
Robust magnesium alloy construction
19/20
Ergonomics
Ability to quickly switch AF modes, tiltingscreen, useful joystick with some quirks
13/15
Warranty & Support
Two-year warranty, wide service network      
4/5
MRP Rs 1,32,950 (body only)
OVERALL 93%
VALUE FOR MONEY 4/5
Who should buy it? Sports and wildlife professionals, those who need the D5’s speed but are on a budget.
Why? Low light performance is exceptional, including the
ability to focus at –4EV. It is also blazing fast, with a buffer of 200 RAWs and excellent tracking capabilities that rarely fails.

 

 

Tags: Anniversary Issue Vol 2, APS-C Nikon flagship, Camera, DSLR, full frame camera, July 2015, mini D5, nikon, Nikon D500, Raj Lalwani, Review

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